Team Misawa leans on Japan Air Self-Defense Force to provide eyes through the skies

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- This is part three in a series highlighting the teams charged with keeping Misawa's airfield mission-ready at all times.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force Air Traffic Control Squadron is responsible for managing all aircraft flow on the ground and in the air at Misawa Air Base, Japan, and is the only allied nation-led ATC on a U.S. base in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

Pilots--both U.S. and Japanese--depend heavily on the controllers in the tower to be their 'eyes in the sky,' especially in Northern Japan's unpredictable weather. Through highly efficient radar systems, the tower and radar approach control within the ATCS does just that.

“The tower controls aircraft and vehicles on the airfield and space within five nautical miles from the surface up to 6,000 feet,” said Japan Air Self-Defense Force 2nd Lt. Junji Mori, an Air Traffic Control Squadron controller. “Basically, tower controllers establish visual separation between aircraft while radar control room controllers use a radar to establish a safe separation between aircraft. It depends on the directions, but they control all JASDF, U.S. and commercial aircraft within approximately 50 nm from Misawa.”

Misawa ATCS provides a safe and efficient flow of aircraft to and from the airfield. The JASDF, otherwise known as Koku-Jieitai, members coordinate aircraft movement, sequencing and providing safety advisories to all airfield operators.

“The tower controllers are the guys directing the planes you see arriving, departing and ‘playing’ over the base,” said USAF Master Sgt. Natalie Thompson, a 35th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller liaison. “They ensure aircraft stay separated from one another, as well as other obstructions.”

Every day, thousands of military airplanes and helicopters take off and land all over the world. The job of ATCs to monitor aircraft in order to prevent accidents and direct movement in and out of all military airfields.

“Misawa is very unique because the 35th Fighter Wing owns the airfield and all of the assets on the airfield, but the JASDF owns and operates the airspace,” Thompson said. “Each day and every mission is a bilateral operation. The tower and RAPCON consistently work with the 35th FW and JASDF’s 3rd Air Wing to coordinate the movement of aircraft and airspace operations, enabling successful executions of training missions.”

Misawa AB’s USAF ATCs once controlled the tower after World War II, but in 1971 they delegated the ATC authority to their Koku-Jieitai counterparts.

“Everyone is always monitored. At any given moment, in theory, we should be able to provide control instructions via radio or alternate means of communication to any aircraft at any time,” said Thompson. “Misawa ATCS relies heavily on the use of VHF and UHF radios to communicate to aircraft.”

Communication is crucial for air traffic controllers, but sometimes understanding one language spoken by pilots from various countries can be a challenge. While English is the universal language of flight operations, sometimes there can still be a barrier.

“Due to the bilateral nature of the radio communication, we keep a pilot in the tower at all times called a SOF, or a supervisor of flying,” said USAF Capt. Mike Dreher, a 14th Fighter Squadron electronic combat pilot. “Having a knowledgeable F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot negates any language barriers in case of an in-flight emergency, allowing us to be the eyes and ears on the ground helping troubleshoot any problems.”

From their "eyes in the sky," the controllers see the bigger picture of both the airfield and the skies, and use that information to safely allow the pilots to continue with their missions, ultimately maintaining the readiness they need.

“If there wasn’t an ATC facility, flying would ultimately stop during poor weather conditions,” said Thompson. “There are various ways to operate an airfield without ATC support, but for a base this size, with this many airframes – it would be a great detriment to the mission set and safety.”
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